Shot at Again, Mr. Larabee?
Disclaimer: Just having fun. If you want to know how Chris and the boys first met Jess please e-mail me. The story concerning this is on another web site.
Chris flicked a piece of dirt from his sleeve and then shaded his eyes as he looked into the distance. He saw the river shining in the sunlight and sighed with relief knowing he would soon be home. He patted his horse and then urged it onwards. It was Fall and there was a coldness in the air suggesting frosts to come. Although it was dry there were black clouds in the sky threatening a downpour. Chris looked around and thought he could be the only person on the planet, there was not a living thing in sight. The great expanse of country opened out in front of him and he felt totally alone. Not that it bothered him he liked his own company, but he always found the sight of the empty land awesome.
He reached the river bank and his horse nickered as if there was another horse nearby. Chris studied the surrounding area but saw no one, so he turned his attention back to the river crossing which he had used many times before. The river was running fast but it didn't concern him. He knew if he stuck to the area where the water ran slightly slower there was a flat section in the riverbed that made crossing easy. He just had to make sure he didn't deviate from there. He urged his horse into the cold water and started over to the other side. The horse kicked up great plumes of water with each step and Chris wiped his face as he was splashed. He was making good progress and had got halfway when a shot rang out from the far bank. He ducked instinctively as he heard the bullet fly past his head. His horse, startled by the shot, sidestepped nervously and Chris tried to keep it to the shallows. Another shot sounded, and Chris felt his horse going down. He kicked his feet from the stirrups as his horse lurched and collapsed beneath him. He threw himself into the water and managed to avoid getting trapped under his mount. Unfortunately he landed in the faster flowing section of water and was swept downstream before he could do anything to stop himself. He looked frantically round for something to grab hold of but he was in the middle of the river. He tried swimming over to one side but the current was too strong for him and he soon became exhausted. The weight of the water in his clothes dragged him down so he struggled out of his duster and boots. He would be sorry to lose those boots. Sarah had given them to him but he knew she wouldn't have wanted him to sacrifice himself for the sake of sentiment. He shook his head as his vision became obscured by the water flying in his face and he was buffeted this way and that by the current.
The blond gunfighter drifted on downstream helplessly and cried out in pain as his arm hit an unseen underwater rock. Unable to use that limb to help keep him afloat he went under the surface only to come up seconds later coughing and spluttering. He shook his head trying desperately to clear the water from his eyes, so he could look out for other obstacles. The water was very cold and he was beginning to lose the feeling in his body. The current tugged at him constantly and he was swept inexorably downstream. He could see the green landscape rushing by on either side of him. Firm ground within sight, but he might as well have been trying to reach the moon. He looked forwards and saw the river disappear from view. He realized with horror that he was probably coming to a waterfall. He looked around frantically for something to grab onto but there was nothing. He took a deep breath before he went over the edge. He was swept over and as he was falling, his head hit an outcrop knocking him out. He landed in the pool beneath the fall and regained consciousness as he hit the water. Unable to get free from the undercurrent created by the water falling above him he struggled desperately to get himself out. Just when he thought he couldn't hold his breath anymore he felt the water's hold on him slacken. He kicked his legs feebly and eventually resurfaced coughing. He found he was now in slow running water and was able to make his way over to the bank. He stretched his trembling legs down and his feet found the river bed. He stood up shakily and put a hand up to his head. He winced and when he looked at his hand it was covered in blood. He shivered as the cold air hit his wet clothes and he rubbed his legs with his good hand to get some feeling back into them. He clenched his teeth together to stop them chattering and shook some of the excess water from his body. He turned his attention to trying to get out of the water. The river bank was only hip height but with one useless arm Chris had great difficulty climbing out. He managed to in the end and flopped down on his back looking up at the sky, exhausted and in pain. He slowly rolled over when he had recovered and levered himself into a sitting position by using his good arm. He looked down at his other limb and cursed. It felt numb and he knew it was broken. His head hurt too and he felt dazed and nauseous. Jesus Larabee, you don't half get yourself in trouble sometimes, he thought to himself.
He looked around him to see if he recognized where he was. The river had taken him a long way from the crossing and he thought he was a mile away from Jess's ranch. Knowing she was his best bet he got his bearings and struggled to his feet. He shivered uncontrollably as the wind chilled him to the bone. Perhaps a bit of exercise would help to warm him up although there was no heat in the sun to dry him off. He would have to suffer and be damned, he realized. He started walking, cradling his injured arm across his chest. Every step he took sent a stab of pain through him. Blood from the cut to his head ran into his eyes and he wearily wiped it away on his sleeve.
He just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and occasionally looked up to see he was still heading in the right direction. He soon found that walking wasn't making him any warmer. His clothes stuck to him and he was becoming increasingly cold the further he went. His sock clad feet were getting dirtier by the minute but at least the ground wasn't stony. Count yourself lucky Larabee, he said to himself. He looked up again and saw the ranch in the distance but no matter how many steps he took, it didn't seem to get any closer. He could see Jess in the yard but she was intent on grooming her horse and gave no sign of seeing him staggering toward her. Her image started to float in front of his eyes. He couldn't seem to focus and the pain in his head was getting worse. He was just about to fall when he felt someone take his weight and support him to the house. He was lowered onto something soft which turned out to be a couch.
"Chris, can you hear me? It's Jess. I'm going to get you out of these wet clothes and warm you up." She got no reply. She had seen that he had injured his arm when she had helped him into the house, so she took care when touching him. There was no time for embarrassment as she set to work stripping him of his clothes and drying him off before wrapping him up in thick blankets. She touched his face and found him cold to the touch. She got to her feet and made her way into the kitchen to find a bed warmer and something to treat his head wound with. She heated the bed warmer and put it in her own bed. She walked back and took a look at Chris, noting that he looked pale and was still shivering occasionally. She washed his face gently to remove the blood and then looked at the cut on his brow. It had stopped bleeding and wasn't too deep so she left it alone. He was developing a nice lump though. She washed the rest of the dirt from his body. The wind had covered him from head to foot with dust. Although his clothes had taken the brunt of it, his exposed skin had a thick covering too. She went back to check on the warmth in the bed when she had finished and she then manhandled him into it. She sat down next to him to wait for him to wake up and was glad to see him stir and open his eyes within minutes. His gaze fell on her face and he screwed his eyes up as he tried to focus. Her image finally cleared and he smiled.
"Why is it we only meet up when one of us is in trouble?" she asked him.
"Just lucky I guess," he said smiling.
"Are you warm enough?"
"Someone shot my horse and I fell in the river. I ended up about a mile from here so decided to come to you. I hope you don't mind."
"Shot at again, Mr. Larabee? Do you have an endless list of enemies or what?"
"I just seem to annoy some people. Can't imagine why."
"Let me have a look at your arm," Jess said.
"I broke it in the river when I hit a rock."
"You picked the wrong time of year to go swimming. It must have been cold," Jess said as she inspected his arm carefully. She felt around the break and sighed. "It needs straightening. The two ends of the bone don't meet. Are you happy for me to do it?"
"Yeah, go for it. Just be gentle with me."
Jess laughed and said, "I'll just find something to use as a splint." She rose and walked out of the room.
Chris watched her leave and his eyes settled on his clothes piled on a chair in the corner of the room. He paled and lifted the blanket covering him and saw he was totally naked underneath. Jess came back in and he dropped the blanket swiftly. Their eyes met and they both laughed.
"Not embarrassed by your body are you? Don't fret, you should know I only have an artists' interest in the human form. You're perfectly safe. I'll find you some clothes if you're uncomfortable."
"No, it's alright. It just startled me for a minute."
Jess walked over and stood beside the bed and took a grip on his arm above and below the break. She smiled and asked, "Ready?"
Chris nodded and Jess gave a swift pull.
"Jeez," Chris muttered between clenched teeth.
"It's okay. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." Chris tried to stay still as Jess put the splints on his arm and strapped it to his chest, but it hurt like hell.
"I've got some broth on the stove. It'll help warm you up and then you can get some rest. You are hungry I take it?" she asked.
"Yes I am."
"I'll get you some clothes to put on while I dry yours." She disappeared for a couple of minutes and Chris could hear her rummaging around in a room nearby. She returned with a pile of clothes and put them on the bed. "Here you go. Nothing fancy but I'm sure you won't mind. Shall I help you?"
Jess dressed him calmly and efficiently and left to get him some food. She came back with a tray laden with a bowl of broth and some bread.
"Can you manage?" she asked.
"Yes, I'll be fine. Thanks Jess, I appreciate it."
"You're welcome. I still owe you for your help when my family was killed."
"No, you don't. We settled that as well you know."
"Yes, but I never felt it was enough. I'll leave you to eat. Call if you want anything." Chris ate slowly and started to feel a bit more human. He managed with one hand quite well. He only dropped his bread in the broth, splashing the liquid over the bed clothes, so he didn't think he'd done too badly.
Jess returned half an hour later looking troubled.
"What's the matter?" Chris asked, as he rubbed his temples wearily. His head was still throbbing and he felt slightly sick and dizzy.
"Did you see who shot you?"
"No. Why?" Chris asked, puzzled by her question.
"Pedro said he saw someone hanging around. He went to see what he wanted but the man rode off."
"Oh, he comes and helps out now that I'm on my own. He's a great help as well as good company."
"If the man is the same one who at shot me we'd better get into town," Chris suggested.
"You're in no condition to ride."
"I can't defend you either."
"I can shoot you know and Pedro's here. We can defend the house but if we leave here we'd be in the open and vulnerable."
Chris frowned and then said, "Weren't Buck and Vin due out here today to help build a new corral?"
"Yes, I'd forgotten. They should be here soon. They were coming early."
"Get Pedro to keep an eye out for the stranger. There may be no reason to worry. He could just have been someone passing through."
"Yeah, perhaps you're right." Jess looked across at Chris and saw he looked pale. He shivered again and pulled the blankets up under his chin tightly.
"Are you alright?" she asked concerned.
"I just came over all cold."
Jess walked over and felt his brow. It was slightly warmer than it should have been. "I bet you've got a chill. I'll light the fire in here for you."
"Dammit. I'm sorry."
"What are you apologizing for?" she asked, as she set to the task.
"I never meant to be so much trouble."
"It's your middle name isn't it? What do you expect?" She smiled at him and then turned her head as she heard a noise outside. She made her way to the window and looked out. "Vin and Buck are here."
She left the room and stepped off the porch to greet the new arrivals. "Vin, Buck."
"Hey Jess. Still wearing men's clothes, I see. Am I ever going to see you in a dress? How are you anyway?" Buck asked.
"Oh, I'm alright. I've got Chris here though and he's not too well."
"Chris is here? How?" Buck queried.
"Someone shot his horse and he fell in the river. He's broken his arm and got a chill as well as a nasty cut on his head."
"I'll go and see him. Can you look after the horses, Vin?" Buck asked as he passed over his reins.
"Yeah sure," Vin answered as Buck went into the house. "Are you alright? You look uneasy," Vin said to Jess.
"Pedro said he saw someone hanging around. We wondered if it was the man who shot at Chris."
"I'll go and have a look if you like. Did Chris see who shot at him?"
"No, he didn't."
"Okay. You go inside and I'll be back soon." Vin swung up into the saddle again and set off.
Meanwhile Buck sat down next to Chris on the bed. "Hey Chris. How yer feeling?"
"I'm alright, just cold and defenseless."
"Hey. Like the night clothes." Buck frowned and then said, "Who dressed you if your arm is broken?"
"Don't say a word or I'll hit you," Chris said threateningly.
"Oh, that's great. Wait 'til I tell Vin," Buck said, understanding what Chris meant.
"Tell Vin what?" Jess asked from the doorway.
"That you saw Chris in the raw," Buck said laughing. Chris reached out and hit him with his good arm while turning a deep shade of red. Jess smiled and returned to the kitchen.
Buck laughed again at the look on Chris's face. "Sorry pard, didn't think you were the sensitive sort. I'd trade places with you if I could. I wouldn't mind being tended by Jess."
"Well you'd have to be ill for her to take any interest in you. You've had about as much success with her as you have with Inez."
"You may mock. I'll win her over. Just you wait and see. We share the same sense of humor and I bet I won't be the only one telling the boys about your nakedness."
"I'll get you back for that, don't you worry Bucklin."
"I'm shaking in my boots," Buck smiled as he patted Chris's arm and he rose to leave. "You get some rest and I'll come back later."
"Leave yer sense of humor behind when you come, will ya?" Chris said sourly.
Buck burst out laughing and left the room. He joined Jess in the kitchen and asked, "Where's Vin?"
"He's doing a check around. We thought there was someone lurking and we wondered if it was the man who shot at Chris."
Deciding that Vin could take care of himself, Buck turned his attention to Jess. "How have you been anyway? I haven't seen you in town for ages."
"Oh, I'm okay. Too much to do around here to dwell on things. Pedro's a help. It's good to have someone else around the place." Jess had lost her family six months previously and had remained friends with the seven men who had brought the murderers to justice.
Vin rode back into the yard and Buck went out to meet him. "Anyone about?"
"No. Someone had been in the trees over there for a while though. There were cigar butts and you could see where a horse had been tied up. I followed some tracks and they led back to the river crossing. It's got to be the same man. Anyway, how's Chris?"
"Jess...." Buck never finished the sentence. He felt a hand slap the back of his head and he turned round guiltily. Jess was standing behind him with a raised eyebrow.
"Ow Jess. That hurt," he complained, rubbing his head.
"What did Chris say to you? Keep your mouth shut as I remember. I aim to see that you do."
"Yes, Ma'am. Sorry Vin, can't tell you." Buck smiled as he turned to his companion. Vin looked at him curiously but did not pursue matters. He would find out eventually. He knew Buck could never keep his mouth shut when he had some good gossip.
"Are you going to build my corral or did you just come out here for the exercise?" Jess asked sarcastically.
"God. She's going to be a hard task master," Buck moaned.
Vin smiled and said, "We'll get cracking. We'll also keep an eye out for any strangers. We'd better stay here until Chris can get back to town, don't ya think Buck?"
"Yeah, gets us out of helping Josiah unload that wagon of wood he's got coming for the chapel. Not that we're gonna have it easy here with Jess nagging us."
The two men started work while Pedro kept watch. After about an hour he called Vin and pointed into the distance at a lone rider. Vin found his eyeglass and studied the man and then passed the glass to Pedro.
"Was he the man you saw earlier?"
"Yes. That's him."
"What do ya wanna do?" Buck asked.
"I think we'll let him get settled. If we make a move now, he'll just disappear again. Pedro? Can you help Buck while I keep an eye on our friend?" Vin stood and watched the rider although he tried not to make it look too obvious. He didn't want the man to know he was being watched. The rider headed back toward the trees and disappeared from view again. Vin went back to work while he decided how to handle the situation. After a while he stretched and looked over at Buck.
"I think I'll take that ride now. He seems to be on his own." Vin looked toward the trees and saw the sun reflect of something. "Damn. It looks as though he's watching us. He must have an eyeglass too. What are we gonna do now?" He turned as Jess came out on the porch and he studied her intently, an idea forming in his head. She didn't flinch under his gaze but she frowned as he looked at her.
"What are you thinking?" she asked.
"We're both about the same size, same color hair. I've got an idea. If you put on my clothes and help Buck with the corral, our friend will hopefully mistake you for me. I can then sneak out the back and circle round behind him. He shouldn't be able to tell the difference between us at this distance."
"If he's being so careful won't he think it funny if he doesn't see Jess?" Buck asked.
"Maybe. Could you keep changing clothes and show yerself in your own duds every so often? Hopefully he won't realize that he doesn't see you and me at the same time," Vin suggested.
"Yeah sure. I'll lend you some of my father's clothes while I'm using yours." Jess turned and went back inside and Vin went back to work for a while before following her in. He quickly took off his outer garments and Jess put them on. She passed him some clothes to wear and then they both looked at each other to see if they passed muster. He took off his hat and put it on her head.
"We should fool him if he's not too picky," Vin said in satisfaction. "I'll go out the back in about ten minutes. You go on out and start work with Buck." Jess turned and left after wishing Vin luck.
"Hey Jess. Vin certainly has excelled himself this time. He does have the occasional good idea. Our spy won't notice any difference," Buck said when he saw her.
"I sure hope you're right. Let's get to work. Vin is leaving in about ten minutes." They started nailing the rails to the posts that had already been set in the ground. Jess wiped her brow but she didn't dare remove the hat in case the man spotted she wasn't Vin. It was a good thing that she was use to hard work and could keep up with Buck, she thought to herself.
Vin meanwhile sneaked out the back of the house and mounted the horse waiting for him. He had left his own mount at the front. It would be another sign to the man that he was supposedly still on the ranch. He set off, keeping out of view and he made a big circle to arrive behind the trees without being spotted by the man watching. He dismounted and left the horse on the edge of the woods. He silently moved toward the man, keeping low and making sure he didn't make too much noise. He saw the man squatted down in deep undergrowth with an eyeglass focused on the ranch.
Back at the ranch, Jess had gone inside and changed into her own pants and shirt. She used the opportunity to check on Chris. He was asleep and she walked over to the bed to feel his brow. He stirred uneasily beneath her hand but didn't wake. She patted his shoulder and he settled down. She walked back outside with a drink for Buck. He wandered over and took it from her hand.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah. I just hope our spy doesn't get wise to our ruse," she said. Buck handed her back the now empty glass and she ambled back inside. She changed into Vin's clothes and walked outside again with a drink of her own. She drank the contents and then went back to help Buck.
The man in the trees lowered his eyeglass and muttered, "Good. They're all still there."
"I think you'd better look again," Vin said from behind him.
The man spun round in surprise, dropping his eyeglass and reaching for his gun. He had stayed low and Vin had to kick out to knock the man's hand away from his holster.
"I wouldn't if I were you. I've got you covered. What are you doing here?" Vin asked, as he aimed his gun at the man.
"I've got business with Larabee."
"He's not up to visitors. Why did you shoot at him?"
"That's none of your concern," the man snapped belligerently.
"It is when you intend to hurt him. Get up." Vin walked over to the man and his opponent slowly rose to his feet and watched Vin warily as he approached.
"I'm going to have to take you in for attempted murder," Vin informed him.
As Vin reached for the man's gun, his prisoner struck with force. He had a hidden knife which was kept in an arm holster like the one Ezra had for his derringer. Vin saw the knife too late and couldn't stop his forward movement. He cried out as the man stabbed him in his side and then in his outstretched hand. Vin collapsed at his attacker's feet in agony, clutching his side tightly. The man reached down and pulled Vin's head up by his hair and shouted in his ear, "Tell Larabee that Joe Green is looking for him. He's got something that belongs to me and I'll get it back even if it means killing all his friends to get to him."
Vin looked up at the man with pain filled eyes. Joe slammed Vin's head down on the ground and then ran to where his horse was hidden. He mounted quickly and rode off fast toward the river. Buck looked up when he heard the sound of hooves and cursed as he saw the stranger ride away. He expected to see Vin in pursuit, but when the tracker failed to appear Buck ran to his own horse and made his way quickly to the trees.
"Vin? Where are you?" he cried. He listened intently but heard no reply. He scouted round and found Vin laying unconscious in some undergrowth. He knelt down beside the sharpshooter and gently checked him over for injuries. Vin flinched and groaned when Buck's hand touched his side and the ladies' man found the wound there.
"Damn." He lifted Vin gently into his arms and made his way back to his waiting horse. He lifted Vin into the saddle and mounted behind him and started back to the house slowly. When he was near enough, he shouted to Jess to tell her what had happened.
Jess turned to Pedro and said, "Ride to town and get Nathan. Go quickly, take my mare and be careful." Pedro turned and ran to collect the horse. Jess watched as he mounted and headed off to town at a gallop. She moved out to meet Buck and helped to take Vin's weight as Buck lowered him down to her. Buck quickly dismounted and lifted Vin again and hurried into the house. He put his friend down on the couch and ripped away his shirt to get a better look at the stab wound. Jess came in with some whiskey, water and rags to use as bandages.
Chris called out from his room, "What's going on?"
"It's alright Chris. Stay where you are," Buck shouted to him.
Jess started to take care of Vin's wound. She would be glad when Nathan arrived, she hadn't dealt with anything like this before and she was scared. Buck patted her shoulder in encouragement as he took care of the wound in Vin's hand. Jess looked up as she felt another person's presence in the room and saw Chris swaying in the doorway.
"Chris get back to bed. You shouldn't be up," she admonished.
"What's happened? Is Vin alright?"
Buck rose and led Chris back to bed. "Vin's been stabbed in his side and hand. Jess has sent Pedro to get Nathan because he's bleeding quite badly, but don't you worry." He lowered Chris onto the bed and made him lie down again.
"Who did it?"
"The stranger came back and Vin went to confront him. We'll find out more when Vin wakes up."
"Buck? Can you come and help?" Jess called from outside.
"Look Chris. I'll come back in a minute. Just stay there. Jess can do without you collapsing too." Buck rose and went back to help Jess.
"What can I do?" he asked.
"Can you lift him while I bandage him up?"
"Yeah sure. Is he still bleeding?"
"I think it's stopped for the moment, but he needs stitches. The wound's quite deep. I'd only got some whiskey to disinfect the wound. I hope it does the trick because Nathan won't be here for a few hours." Vin was pale and she could feel the heat from his body suggesting a developing fever.
Buck held Vin while Jess worked and then settled the sharpshooter back onto the couch. He stirred as Buck let go of him and opened his eyes.
"Hey pard. How do you feel?" Buck asked.
"My sides on fire. He had a hidden knife and I didn't see it until it was too late. I'm sorry I lost him."
"Don't worry about it. Did you find out anything about him?"
"He said his name was Joe Greene and that Chris had something that belonged to him. He said he would kill us all to get to Chris if he had to, but he wouldn't say what was involved."
"Jesus. I'm sorry Vin." Chris was again standing in the doorway, holding a hand to his head.
Buck turned to him angrily and said, "God, Chris can't you do as you're told for once? Come and sit here before you fall down and tell us who this Joe Greene hombre is."
Chris ambled over and sat down next to Buck. "You know I went to Eagle Bend today? I went to collect a land deed. Someone I used to work for left me his ranch in his will and Joe Greene is his son. Matthew, the rancher, didn't want Joe to have the land, they didn't exactly get on. Joe obviously doesn't want to accept his father's wishes."
"He'll be back then. What do you want us to do?" Buck asked.
"If Nathan's coming you can bet yer bottom dollar the rest of the boys will come too. We'll just have to hope Joe doesn't come back before they get here. If not, you're the only person who's fit to deal with him Buck."
"We'd better be prepared anyway. I wouldn't want to disappoint him and not offer an enthusiastic welcome," Buck said. He looked down at Vin as he spoke and smiled. "We'd better get you out of harms way. Knowing you wherever we put you, you'll get in some sort of trouble."
"We can move him to the back bedroom if you like. He should be fairly safe there," Jess said.
"Okay. You ready Vin?" Buck leant down and lifted the tracker as gently as possible. Vin still couldn't help uttering a sob as he was moved. Buck walked steadily to the bedroom and laid Vin on the covers. Jess had followed them in and sat down beside Vin to check his wound. She could see blood on the bandages and she cursed softly.
"You're bleeding again. I'll cut through the bandages rather than move you for the moment." Jess rose and left the room to find some more supplies.
"Sorry Vin. Jess'll look after you. I'll go and see what ammunition we've got between us. I'll come back and see you later. Chris, you come in here and sit down where Jess can keep an eye on you."
Chris went and sat quietly next to the bed and wiped Vin's brow with a cloth that Jess had left behind. Jess returned and walked over to Chris first.
"How do you feel?"
"Dizzy, but don't worry about me. See to Vin." Jess held out a hand and touched his brow as he spoke. It was still quite warm.
"I'll get you a blanket after I've seen to Vin." She turned her attention to the sharpshooter. She cut through the bandages and pulled them gently away from the wound. Even in the short time they had been on they had managed to get stuck to his skin. She had brought some water with her and she soaked the bandages so they came off without hurting Vin too much. She treated the wound as best she could and then called Buck to help her bandage Vin again. Buck settled Vin back on the bed and patted his shoulder.
"You get some rest. Nathan will be here soon." Vin closed his eyes and went to sleep. His side burned like hell and he felt hot and cold in rotation. Buck inclined his head at Jess and indicated for her to follow him. She rose and went with him.
"What is it?" she asked.
"You stay with them and make sure Chris doesn't intervene. I'll handle anything that happens. Just tell Vin that you saw Chris naked if he acts up. That'll make him behave himself."
"You're so cruel," Jess said laughing.
"No, I'm not. I just know how to keep him in line. I'd love to see the look on Chris's face though if you did tell Vin." Buck left Jess to look after the two casualties and walked outside. He collected supplies of ammunition from their horses and went back inside to see how much Chris had on him. He put everything he had collected on the kitchen table and realized they were very short of bullets. Oh well, there's only one man involved. How many bullets would that take? I'm not that bad a shot, he thought to himself.
Vin slept uneasily and Chris dozed in the chair. Jess washed Vin down every so often to try to keep him cool and stop the fever from getting control. A couple of hours passed uneventfully. Jess had been watching out the window in the bedroom for any movement and she saw their quarry. She called to Buck, "He's coming in from behind us again. What do you want to do?"
"I'll take care of it. Just keep an eye on those invalids of yours," Buck replied as he stepped off the porch. He walked toward the rear of the house. He flattened himself against the wall and peered round the corner cautiously to see how near Joe was. He was still some distance away and Buck decided to wait until he was nearer before he took action. He didn't think Joe had seen him so he was counting on the element of surprise.
He sneaked another look round the side of the building and saw that Joe was heading toward the barn. Buck cursed softly and waited until Joe had disappeared from view and then made his way quickly over the yard to the barn door. He leant against the door and listened intently. He could hear something moving around inside but he couldn't tell if was Joe or the horses. He took a quick look in the door and saw Joe near the rear of the building fiddling about on the floor. The man was partially obscured from view and Buck couldn't see what he was doing. He saw a flare of flame and watched in horror as he realized Joe had lit the hay stored there. He needed to act fast, but he couldn't enter the barn from the same rear door that Joe had used as that was where the fire was. He was going to have to go through the front where he was now and cross a large open expanse. So with little thought for his safety he dove inside the barn and ran toward Joe. He needed to get the fire put out before it managed to take hold, but Joe had to be put out of commission first.
Joe heard him coming and turned to face him, but he made sure Buck couldn't get a good shot by ducking into one of the stalls. Buck slowed down and moved cautiously toward the stall he had seen Joe enter. Joe would hopefully be expecting him to appear at the entrance but Buck decided he would climb over the solid side wall instead and take the man from above. Unfortunately for Buck, Joe could see his shadow as the flames from the fire sent his outline out in front of him giving away his position. When Buck appeared at the top of the wall, Joe was waiting with his knife. He thrust upwards as he saw the top of Buck's head come into view. Buck, although expecting to take Joe by surprise, was ready for anything and he managed to duck back down before being slashed.
"Damn," he cursed under his breath. He looked toward the flames and saw they were creeping steadily upwards and outwards. He would be trapped if he wasn't careful. He looked around him frantically to see how far away he was from the doorway. The horses were beginning to panic and Buck knew he would have to try to get them out as well. How could he do three different things at once?
Back in the house, Jess could hear the horses screaming in terror. She went out into the kitchen and looked toward the barn. She could see the smoke and flames engulfing the building.
"What's happening?" Chris shouted.
"The barn's on fire. The horses are trapped. I can't see Buck or Joe anywhere outside. They must be in there too."
"I'm going out," Chris stated firmly, picking up his gun. Jess looked into his face and knew she wouldn't be able to stop him. Even in his present condition she knew she was no match for him. His friend was in trouble and he would help him no matter what, even with a broken arm and a slight concussion. "You stay here and look after Vin. I'll do what I can."
"Alright, but please take care."
Jess returned to Vin's beside. He was in a bad way and was hot to the touch. She stayed beside him and continued to wipe his upper body with water to try to keep him cool. He tossed and turned under her hands as the fever took hold. The water eventually did some good and he calmed slightly. He continued to mumble in his sleep and she patted his arm to let him know she was there. She really wished Nathan would arrive soon as she didn't know what else to do to help the tracker. She whispered to him in the hope that the sound of her voice would calm him while she held his hand tightly and wondered what the outcome of the current situation would be. The human contact with Vin was as much for her benefit as for the trackers.
Chris meanwhile had made his way over to the barn. He still felt dizzy and the path he took was far from a straight one. He got to the doorway without mishap and took a look inside. He saw Buck toward the back of the barn but could not see Joe anywhere. Chris went through the door and released the horses that he came to as he made his way to meet Buck. The horses ran for the door as soon as Chris released them and they served to give him a bit of cover if Joe was anywhere near him. He eventually reached Buck and sat down beside him.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Buck whispered angrily.
"I thought you could do with some help. Where's Joe?"
"In the next stall along, the last time I saw him. He's still got his knife."
"Look Buck. Why don't you make your way over to the ladder up to the loft while I stay here? You get his attention and I'll take him from behind." Chris stood up and swayed as a bout of dizziness overcame him. Buck put out a hand quickly to keep him upright and shook his head at the stubbornness of his friend.
"How are ya gonna take him with only one arm?"
"It's not my shooting arm. I can manage."
Buck shook his head, but left Chris when he had recovered and made his way back to the loft ladder and climbed it quickly. He made his way overhead until he was standing above Joe.
"Hey Joe. Up here," he called. Joe looked up and aimed his gun at Buck. He fired one quick shot which ricocheted off the barn's stone wall and hit his target in the lower leg. Buck fell cursing but managed to get a return shot in before he fell. Chris meanwhile silently stood up and walked in behind Joe. As Joe ducked from Buck's bullet, Chris kicked him in the butt, sending him crashing into the manger. The man fell and lay still.
Chris looked upwards and shouted, "Buck, are you alright?"
"He got me in the leg."
"Can you get back down?"
"Hurry up. The flames are spreading and you won't get out." Chris coughed as he inhaled a lungful of smoke. He put a hand over his mouth to try to protect himself. The smoke was making him feel dizzy again. He could also feel the heat from the flames on his body as they crept closer to his position. Visibility was getting worse and he hoped they would be able to find the doorway. Chris heard a shout from outside and saw the outline of someone standing near him. He screwed his eyes up and looked at the figure, realizing it was Ezra.
"Ez. Buck is up in the loft. He was hit in the leg."
"Okay. Don't fret. Mr. Sanchez? Bucklin is in the loft, can you evacuate him while I see to Mr. Larabee?"
"Yeah sure." Josiah ran to the ladder and climbed quickly. He found Buck near the hatch and put him over his shoulder and descended as fast as he could. Buck was coughing heartily from the smoke and Josiah laid him on the ground when he had got a fair distance from the barn.
"Brother Buck, are you alright?"
"Yeah. Thanks Josiah. For a minute I thought I was going to be burnt to a frazzle."
"Let's have a look at your leg." Josiah tore the pant's leg and looked at the wound. The bullet had gone straight through. "Let's get you inside. Nathan's seeing to Vin at the moment. You'll be seen next by the look of it." Josiah helped Buck up and supported him into the house.
Nathan looked up from Vin's bed and shook his head. "Not another one. Jess what have you been doing to them? Get in line Buck. I'll see you next."
Chris was sitting in the chair he had previously occupied being looked at by Jess.
"Did you get Joe out?" he asked Josiah.
"No, the flames are too intense to go back inside. We'll have to let it run its course."
"How's Vin?" Buck asked.
"Poorly, but he should recover. He's got quite a high fever. I expect the knife wasn't clean, but I've cleaned and stitched the wound now. As long as we can get him cooled down it should work out okay," Nathan said.
Nathan turned his attention to Chris and Buck. He cleaned and bandaged Buck's leg wound and said, "Stay off that leg, Buck. I'll get you a crutch when we get back to town."
"Yeah. Thanks Nate."
"Chris? How do you feel?" The healer asked as he felt the gunfighter's brow.
"You're quite cool now. How's the headache?"
"Right. Stay put you two. Did you see where Jess went?"
"No. Outside I 'spect. She's had a busy day."
Nathan went to find Jess and found her sitting out on the porch with her eyes closed.
"Jess, are you alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine. I was beginning to get worried about Vin. I didn't know what else I could do to help him. I was mighty glad when you turned up, I can tell you."
Nathan patted her shoulder. "You did just fine. He'll be as good as new in a couple of weeks. I'll bring him out to see you when he's fully recovered. I'll take them all back to town tomorrow. He should be okay to travel along with the other two. The fever should break soon, but if he's not fit, I'll come back for him after I've delivered the other two."
"Well, when you do come back, can you make sure you don't bring any trouble with you? It would be nice if I could have one visit without something happening."
Nathan laughed and went back inside. He sat with Vin all night and kept him cool. During the early hours of the morning Vin's fever did break as the healer had predicted. He checked his other charges periodically but spent most of his time with the tracker. Vin was still in considerable pain and Nathan gave him some laudanum to ease it. Once the fever had broken Vin drifted off into a peaceful sleep.
The next morning the three casualties were loaded into the wagon to start the journey back to town. Josiah and JD were going to stay behind to finish the corral, while not surprisingly Ezra had volunteered to go with Nathan and avoid getting his hands dirty. Ezra and Nathan got up on the wagon and said farewell to Jess.
"Are you sure you won't stay and help with the corral Ezra?" she asked teasingly. She knew full well what the answer would be but she couldn't resist ribbing him.
"Not for all the tea in China, my dear." He held out his hands and studied them intently. "These hands are the tools of my trade. I can't afford for one of those two reprobates to deliberately hit my fingers with a hammer to ensure I can't play poker with them. I wouldn't put it past them to
try. It would be the only way they would beat me. They're dreadful gamblers."
"Go on Ezra. I beat you last week," JD complained.
"Once. The next game I trounced you soundly. Your winning was a deliberate ploy on my part to get you to bet more on the next game so I could take more of your money. You really are too gullible, JD. There you are Jess, that just proves the incompetence of my fellow workers."
"You're incorrigible Ezra. Fancy cheating your friends."
"All's fair in poker and war."
"Take him home for God's sake Nathan, will ya?" Josiah pleaded.
Nathan saluted and started the wagon toward town. They waved goodbye to their friends and settled down for the journey ahead of them. It took them a few hours and it was mid afternoon before they arrived. Buck took great delight in seeking sympathy from the local women. He made a great show of limping up the stairs to the clinic and was immediately besieged by a posse of concerned lady friends. He smiled unashamedly and went into great detail of how he'd got his injury. Chris was going to go back to his own room to recover as the clinic would be full with the other two patients. The gunman followed Nathan up the steps to the clinic to make sure that Vin was alright before leaving. He knew the tracker would be out of commission for a couple of weeks while his wound healed.
Nathan settled Vin onto his own bed and looked down at the tracker. "Hey Vin. I'll get you a change of clothes. You've had those on for a couple of days now. I'll find something more comfortable."
"Oh, what a shame Vin. You've got to make do with Nathan. Chris had the pleasure of Jess dressing him or was that undressing?" Buck said laughing.
"Buck, I'm warning you," Chris said threateningly.
"What are you talking about Buck?" Vin had a feeling he was going to find out what Jess had stopped Buck from telling him back at the ranch.
"Jess had the luck of seeing Chris in the buff. She had to remove his clothes after he fell in the river."
Chris rose and walked over to his friend, embarrassment coloring his cheeks. He raised a fist and Buck lifted his crutch to fend the angry gunman off. Vin couldn't help laughing at the look on Chris's face.
"The sight didn't prove too much for her then?" he asked impishly.
"Just because your injured doesn't mean I won't get vengeance. You wait until Mary comes to see ya. I'll cause you no end of grief." Chris turned a fierce look on the sharpshooter, but Vin knew he wouldn't do anything. He wouldn't dare, because Buck was bound to spill the beans to Mary if Chris said anything. Chris suddenly smiled at Vin, knowing what he was thinking.
"Well you two behave yourselves and I'll see you tomorrow." The blond gunman turned and left the clinic to get some rest of his own.
The next morning Josiah and JD came home after finishing the corral and doing a bit of work on the barn. They met up with their fellow peacekeepers in the clinic. The other men had been keeping Vin and Buck company
"How are you, Vin?" Josiah asked.
"He'll be fine. He just needs to rest," Nathan interrupted. "How did you get on with the corral?"
"All finished. Not a bad job if I do say so myself."
"Better than your poker playing I hope," Ezra said.
"Right you asked for it gambler," Josiah said. "Deal."
Ezra dealt and won. "You can't defy brilliance," he said modestly.
"JD? Where's that hammer?"
Ezra rose quickly and ran out of the saloon with Josiah in hot pursuit. The remaining men could hear Ezra shouting as he ran down the steps.
"This is no way for a man of the cloth to act. Get a grip Mr. Sanchez. You'll frighten off your parishioners with such unseemly behavior."
"Never a dull day in Four Corners," Chris laughed.
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